Faculty prepare for upcoming spring Health Days

Ella Marx and Emily Kuwaye

Some professors will give their students extra Health Days in addition to the College-designated Health Days this spring. (Taryn McLaughlin/The Williams Record)

In lieu of the traditional two-week long spring break this semester, the College has created three Health Days (Wednesday, April 21; Thursday, April 22; and Friday, May 7) in the hopes that the absence of classes will provide students space for rest and rejuvenation. As these dates approach, the Record spoke with faculty on how they are preparing for Health Days. Professors have widely embraced the Health Days as important for both student and faculty mental health, and some have also added extra breaks into their syllabi in addition to the Health Days. 

The faculty initially voted to make this change on Oct. 14 while adopting the spring academic calendar. According to a Jan. 19 all-campus email from Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, the decision to replace spring break was made “in the hope of reducing COVID transmission and protecting the campus community.”

“Considerations about how many [Health Days] to have and when they should fall were made in dialogue with a wide range of issues,” said Associate Professor of Music Corinna Campbell, the chair of the Calendar and Schedule Committee (CSC). 

According to Campbell, the CSC’s considerations when planning Health Days included health and safety recommendations from the College administration and operations committees, as well as coordination with local school calendars. The CSC also factored the length of the semester into their decision, as the committee did not want “to prolong the semester unduly for the sake of students hoping to get summer employment and internships,” Campbell said. 

However, many students and faculty have expressed concerns over whether or not these Health Days will be respected. On Jan. 26, the WSU created a petition urging professors not to assign any work to students over Health Days by banning new assignments the day before a Health Day or due dates on the day after a Health Day. 

WSU Representative Argenis Herrera ’22 told the Record that the petition has resulted in increased dialogue between students and faculty.

“The Health Days are an effort to put mental health first, but without regulations over what these days will look like, we worried that they would not be acknowledged nor respected,” Herrera said. “Our petition got students and faculty talking about it, and we will continue to foster this conversation as we approach the Health Days.” 

Herrera also mentioned the importance of respecting Health Days for faculty. “Many professors themselves are looking forward to spending Health Days nurturing their mental and physical health,” he said.

Associate Professor of Biology Matt Carter said the petition did not affect his decisions. “I am aware of the petition, but to be honest, I don’t think it had much of an effect on me or other faculty just because we were already planning on making Health Days sacrosanct!” he said. Although Carter acknowledged that he could not attest to this being the case in every course, he said that “as far as [he] knows, all professors are respecting the spirit of Health Days and not planning any assignments or work during or immediately after.” 

The faculty with whom I have spoken about course planning all intend to respect the Health Days in their syllabi,” Associate Professor of Sociology Christina Simko said. “I planned to respect the Health Days from the moment we as a faculty adopted the spring calendar.” However, Simko did mention the WSU petition in her syllabi, “So that students know I have heard their concerns, and want to be responsive to them.” 

Both Carter and Simko chose to give their students additional Health Days. Carter incorporated two extra Health Days (March 26 and April 23) after scheduled cumulative exams, while Simko is treating the spring reading period (March 22 and 23) as Health Days. Other professors have gone even further in giving their students extra Health Days and reducing the overall workload of the class. Professor of History Thomas Kohut not only incorporated an extra Health Day into his seminar, History 301, but also significantly reduced the workload in the course as well.

Professor of Statistics Richard De Veaux initially had a take-home midterm exam scheduled over two Health Days on an early version of his syllabus for Statistics 346, but he later changed the dates for the midterm so it would not interfere with Health Days. “[I] never intended for students to work over Health Days — just an oversight,” De Veaux wrote in an email to the Record, noting a “complicated syllabus and semester.” 

“These breaks are essential for the health of both students and faculty,” De Veaux said. “I have advocated, without success, for a week-long break in our fall semester since my arrival twenty-six years ago.” While De Veaux does not believe that this current plan is sufficient, he said that “the Health Days at least provide a small break during this intense semester.” 

Similarly, Campbell said that she doesn’t think anyone imagines that Health Days are a functional equivalent to a spring break. “With that in mind, I’d say the sentiment [around Health Days] has been positive but not enthusiastic,” she said.

Carter said that he believes honoring Health Days is important not only for students, but also for faculty. “I personally used spring break not just as a break from teaching, but also a chance to catch up with grading, writing letters of recommendation, and all of the ‘extra’ work that comes with being a professor,” he said. “I am planning to take full advantage of Health Days myself and consider them a necessary part of a busy semester.”

Nevertheless, it would seem that each professor has their own approach to Health Days. Carter said that he did not know of any other professors giving additional Health Days, but he knew of professors using other strategies to reduce students’ overall workload. “Some science faculty are reducing some lab requirements and reducing the total number of labs across the semester,” he said. “[Other] faculty have reduced the number of exams or assignments across the semester to ensure that students are not too stressed.” 

“In my own education and career, I’ve had a very difficult time stepping back from work,” Simko said. “Sleep, exercise, idle chit-chat, freewheeling conversation, and fresh air are all part of how we learn and grow. This semester, I’m especially motivated to model healthier practices for my students.”

Simko also noted the impact of the pandemic on both students and faculty as yet another reason why Health Days are important. “We are all worn down by the tremendous challenges of the past year and the grief we are carrying — for the loved ones we have lost and the experiences we have forgone,” she said. “We cope with that grief in different ways, and my hope is that students will use the Health Days to nurture whatever practices sustain them in difficult times.”